Sundance Founder Robert Redford on His Life, His Activism and the Importance of Independent Films

29 Jan 2010

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Amy Goodman of Democracy Now  spends an hour with Robert Redford. Redford is well known as an actor, but part and parcel of who he is is an activist. He took his success and leveraged it to promote his real passions: environmental justice, Native American rights and independent filmmaking.

Since 1980, through the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Institute, Robert Redford has helped independent voices develop their craft - in film, theater and music - and reach new audiences.

To watch part two of this interview, please click here.

To watch part three of this interview, please click here.

To watch part four of this interview, please click here.

To watch part five of this interview, please click here.

Find the transcript of the full hour-long interview below.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival, the nation’s largest festival for independent cinema. We’re at Sundance this week to feature independent voices from here in the United States and around the world.

Today we spend the hour with Robert Redford, its founder. He’s well known as an actor, a director, a producer, but part and parcel of who he is is an activist. He took his phenomenal success and leveraged it to promote his real passions: environmental justice, Native American rights and independent filmmaking. His activism heightened during the Bush years. In one op-ed piece, he wrote, “The Bush administration’s energy policy to date—a military garrison in the Middle East and drilling for more oil in the Arctic and other fragile habitats—is costly, dangerous and self-defeating."

Well, since 1980, through the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Institute, Robert Redford has helped independent voices develop their craft—in film, in theater and music—to reach larger and newer audiences.

The Sundance festival takes as its namesake one of Redford’s best-known characters, from the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

(Excerpt from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid")

BUTCH CASSIDY: I’ve got a great idea of where we should go next.

SUNDANCE KID: I don’t want to hear it.

BUTCH CASSIDY: You’ll change your mind when I tell you.



SUNDANCE KID: It’s your great ideas that got us here.

BUTCH CASSIDY: Forget about it.

SUNDANCE KID: I don’t ever want to hear another one of your ideas, alright?



BUTCH CASSIDY: Australia. I figured, secretly you wanted to know, so I told you.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Redford with his co-star and friend Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. 

Well, today we turn to an hour interview I did with Robert Redford yesterday here in Park City, Utah.

Bob Redford, welcome to Democracy Now!

ROBERT REDFORD: Thank you. Nice to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us and to be here at Sundance. It has been quite remarkable for the brief time we’ve been here so far.

When you opened the Sundance Film Festival, you said you want to take this festival back to the roots, the roots of rebellion. What did you mean? And why don’t you tell us why you established this?

ROBERT REDFORD: Well, I think probably somebody modified that to add the word “rebellion.” I wouldn’t be that restrictive. But it was true about getting back to our roots. And what I think I did say was that I felt the institute, which started in 1980, it was started on, I would say, a whim. But it certainly was a risky proposition, because it was new, and it was innovative, and it was going to be dependent on its ability to take risks and to forge new territory with new voices. And that’s what we would be doing, supporting the new voices to create a new territory, if that was possible. No one knew whether it would be or not, but that was the chance to be taken.

So, when I started it, I thought, well, if this works—and I didn’t know it would—if it does work, it probably won’t last more than, I don’t know, a few years. Otherwise, it’ll flatline. It’ll flatline, and it’ll start getting too worried about itself. It’ll start being too worried about the money it’s raising, and the next thing you’ll have it get conservative, and then it’ll be trying to hold its own. And it probably won’t go past a certain amount of time. But on the other hand, if it can maintain its so-called mission and point of view, which is basically creating a platform to find and help support new voices in film and give them a chance for their work to be seen and also develop their work at our labs, if it continues to make a difference or to create any kind of an impact or, moreover, continue to create opportunities for the filmmakers, then we’ll keep going.

So what happened over the twenty—the festival started—that was 1980. The festival started in 1986, when I saw that the labs were beginning to succeed and that they were developing new work by new filmmakers. But there was no place to go, because the mainstream had them frozen out. And there was a category at that time that was pretty much relegated to the Humanities and Endowment of the Arts, NEH and NEA. And the funding we got from NEA, I thought, was good as an imprimatur, for credibility, because I didn’t know that I would be trusted. They said, “Well, he’s a movie star, you know, so why doesn’t he pay for everything?” But it was restricted. That was a category that was kind of dead, and it just circulated small films on grants that went into public education. And that was fine, but I thought it was a category that could be grown or enhanced. So we thought about fueling that category from our labs and creating an independent zone that would help the industry. It wouldn’t—it was never meant to go against it or be an insurgency; it was just simply to augment what was already beginning to shrink. So, anyway, when the festival came around, it was, let’s just have a place where the work can be seen.

OK, so now, twenty—twenty-some-odd years later, watching it each year, and it began to feel to me like it was beginning to flatline and be too worried about its own position and the money that was coming in, and so forth. And I thought, no, we should either close it or start new. So what came to my mind was a T.S. Eliot poem that I’ve always been fond of that begins with “Let us not cease from exploration.” And then it goes in a circular line to the end, where it ends with “so that we may return to the place we started and see it as if for the first time.” And that sort of was the idea: Let’s go back to our roots. And now, twenty-five years later, for a lot of people, it might seem fresh and new. But mainly, for us, it’s to remind us of who we were, when, and what we did, taking new chances and carving new areas. And so, that’s what this festival is all about.

AMY GOODMAN: So here you are, a movie star who’s involved with—who, yourself, have directed and performed in blockbuster movies. Why are you thinking about independent media? You’ve succeeded so well in the mainstream.

ROBERT REDFORD: Well, actually, it’s because a lot of the films I’ve made—which maybe some people know about, some people don’t—the very satisfying ones—I’m not at all dissatisfied with my career or the choices made for the larger films. There were some very worthwhile ones. But the films that turned out to really interest me and excite me the most were the ones that I made that were lower budget early on.

When I got to a place, about 1970, where I had been an actor for hire, and I wanted to tell my own stories about the country that I was living in, and the story that I saw, it was a little bit underneath the story you were given, you know? I was seeing another story to be told about my own country that I had lived through, through experience. And so, I asked if I could make my own film.

And I had an idea for a trilogy, around the subject of winning, because I could see that my country was a country obsessed with winning. And as a little kid growing up in a kind of a lower-class, lower working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, sports was my—sports and art was my only out from a bad situation. And I was given this slogan. There was a lot of slogans floating around, and you’re given slogans like “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Well, I found out that was a lie; in this country, everything mattered, whether you won or not. And so, I wanted to make a trilogy and pick three areas of our society that were dominant—sports, politics and business—and tell a story about the pyric victory of winning, winning at all cost.

So, anyway, that was the idea, and people weren’t too excited about it. I wanted to make a film about sport and use skiing as a subject, and then politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Downhill Racer was the sport?

ROBERT REDFORD: Downhill Race was the sports one. And I chose—

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re a skier yourself.

ROBERT REDFORD: Yeah. I chose skiing simply because it was a combination of poetry and danger that I thought would be—and there hadn’t been any films about skiing. No one had seen that visual. Politics—

AMY GOODMAN: But wait, I just want to stick with that for one minute. That one, you almost had to take independent, didn’t you? You didn’t have the full support of Paramount, of the big movie house?

ROBERT REDFORD: Yes, that probably led to the idea of Sundance, because I didn’t—I didn’t have the full support of Sundance at the end. I had it—

AMY GOODMAN: Of Paramount.

ROBERT REDFORD: I thought I did—yeah. I thought I did in the beginning. I was made a lot of promises. But it was a very low budget film, a million-and-a-half dollars. I had given up my salary, and I was very passionate about it. I was willing to do it for nothing. And it practically was done for nothing. It was real guerrilla filmmaking. But, to answer your question, it was so exciting. It was so really, really exciting. And you had all these people pitching in for the same reasons, giving it their all. And it just had a—created energy.

What happened was, the studio dumped it, because they didn’t believe in it. And I had to experience that the hard way. And I realized that there was never any real support for it. They were sort of letting me do it, due to the larger pictures. But the experience of making it so excited me that I kept wanting to do it. And that led me to be making other films throughout the ’70s, because I would do a larger film, which I was happy to do, and “if I do this, would you let me make this little riskier film?” And they say, “Yeah, as long as it’s under $2 million.” So I did The Candidate and Jeremiah Johnson and Ordinary People and a couple of others. And that experience was very thrilling to me. I loved it. And I thought, well, I’m lucky because, you know, I’m making these larger films, and because of that and whatever success they’re having, I’m allowed to make the smaller ones. Well, other people aren’t that lucky. So what about creating something that would allow more people to have that same benefit? But we would have to create the structure.

So that’s what led to the lab program. And then we would focus on that category of independent film, which was sort of dead, and see if we could fuel that. And that led to the festival. And the festival then grew after several years, until it is what it is. That’s enough said on all that. But international created the possibility to bring international stories here. And basically, there was a political subset to it, because these were stories very often about diasporas and people suffering and wanting to get their story out about why there were suffering and what it looked like, so people could understand. And we gave them a platform.

AMY GOODMAN: Your opening film at this year’s film festival was Howl.


AMY GOODMAN: Quite amazing, about that poem by Allen Ginsberg, published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. You personally ran into them in your travels.

ROBERT REDFORD: Yeah, it was by accident.


ROBERT REDFORD: Oh, it’s a long story. I’ll make it short. I was sixteen years old, and it was a rougher time in my life, a lot of trouble here and there and everything. And some buddies of mine—I was sixteen, and I had just discovered jazz. It was 1953. I had just discovered jazz, and to me—that was in the Big Band era. And I heard that language, and it was like some new music, jazz. It was a new language, actually. It was music that was a new language. And it so affected me. I got all taken away from it. And I was told that it was also in San Francisco. This was in Los Angeles, where I grew up. And I got so excited, I told my buddies, I said, “Hey, let’s head on up to San Francisco and find a place for jazz.”

So we went there looking for jazz and, by accident, stumbled into City Lights. And my friends thought it was a bummer. And they said, “What’s this about? You know, all these books and everything?” And I said, “I don’t know, but just give it a minute.” And then no musicians showed up. And then Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder, they all came on, and Ginsberg, and sat in these wooden chairs, and all very preppy. Now my friends are really—they consider, “This is a real waste, you know?” And then they started their—reading their work. And the same thing happened to me. It was another language. And it so hit me, it was concurrent with the jazz. It had the same effect on me.

But this was before “Howl.” And Ginsberg, of all of them, was the most aggressive. He seemed to want—be the one that needed the most attention and wanted the most—he wanted to kind of grab you and pull you into his work, which, in those days, it kind of put me back a little bit because we were too cool for that. And then, after that, when I really started to analyze the work, and particularly with “Howl,” I thought this is pretty major. It may be done when the guy is high. It’s stream of consciousness. He’s probably affected by Joyce and Whitman. It doesn’t matter. It’s a language that relates to my country now. And I thought it was pretty powerful.

So, the other night, I was looking at it with kind of two hats. I thought, wow, this is a proud film for Sundance, because it came through two labs, our documen

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